Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Book: Vivian Maier – Street Photographer

I was introduced to the work of this elusive street photographer by the documentary ‘Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?’, and I wrote a blog post that covered it. At the time I downloaded this book [1] to my iPad, which with hindsight was a silly mistake; the images were too small, and I couldn’t really engage with the subject matter. Thankfully I got the good old-fashioned print version as a Christmas present, and in this I saw so much more, and came to appreciate the quality of her work.

You can google her story but in a sentence: she took tens of thousands of shots on US city streets but none were seen until after her death; she is posthumously feted as the great unsung heroine of street photography. So this collection, like the other books and exhibitions being built out of her legacy, had no input from the photographer herself since she clicked the shutter. Which is just one of the aspects that makes the sheer quality of her work astonishing; she never had feedback on her work. She just churned it out, seemingly for nothing but her own pleasure.

But what of the actual work itself?

Composition

For someone apparently untutored she had a fantastic natural eye for a great photograph. Looking at the available contact sheets on the official Vivian Maier website, it does seem that her ‘keeper’ ratio is higher than average, and it is worth noting that for most of her shooting life (can’t really use the word ‘career’ here) she used a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, which took films of only 12 exposures. So she was by necessity fairly selective about what she shot, unlike 35mm shooters used to 36-exposure film (and totally spoilt digital photographers who can shoot til the battery or memory card gives up). Her compositional skills were, on the evidence of the images curated here, exemplary.

She had a few identifiable compositional styles. Portraits often featured a secondary point of interest that rewarded deeper viewing after the initial focus on the subject’s face, such as the toy that a child is holding, or an unusual item of clothing. In other images she created a sense of mystery, of unresolved narrative by excluding certain elements; what are those children looking up at, out of the frame? why is that man sleeping in his car? Another of her stylistic approaches is the wide architectural shot with person in context for scale.

If I had to identify any flaw – which may come across as spectacularly arrogant, but is relevant here in the context that she didn’t get any feedback or critique, so it’s an exercise in imagining what her peers may have said to her at the time – the one that springs to mind is her over-reliance on centrally-placed subjects. This may in part be an effect of her shooting in 1:1 ratio, where maybe one is just naturally more inclined to place your subject centrally, but in a few instances it lends the image an overly static feel that is at odds with the subject matter itself. In some instances I found myself placing a hand over part of the image in a crude attempt to re-crop it in my mind.

While it’s difficult to date the images accurately, there does seem to have been a progression from quite traditional ‘straight-on’ shots to more creative, often geometric compositions. In particular, the images where she juxtaposed people and architecture display some wonderful shapes and lines. My assumption is that these more compositionally complex images came later as she gained confidence, or just got bored and wanted to experiment a little.

Subject matter

There isn’t a single, strong thematic thread through her work, beyond the level of ‘city street life’; it’s a mixture of portraits (posed and candid, children and adults, solo and groups, plus some self-portraits in reflections), architecture and in a few cases borderline abstract treatments of city street details. Again, as with many aspects of her work this eclectic spread of subject matter may be down to the fact that she never showed her work, never sought opinions, never specialised too much based on external feedback. In this respect she maintained the broad mindset of an amateur. From wider reading I understand that she also worked in colour, video and audio – so this book represents a reasonably contained curation of her output, and it still reasonably eclectic.

It is notable that the content of her work does seem to get darker in mood over the period covered by the book; the work that appears to be from the 1950s is typified by shots of families, especially children, while the later work moving into the late 1960s features down-and-outs, drunks and outsiders. Some of the later work is devoid of people, simply recording the deterioration of the city around her. In this her output can be seen as a parallel of the mood of the nation over the post-war decades.

Legacy

Where to place Maier in the history of street photography? It’s a curious conundrum; on the face of it it would appear that her style would have inspired those who followed – some of her ‘outsider’ portraits are almost Arbus before Arbus – and yet that patently can’t have been the case as she remained hidden throughout her life. So one must surmise that the development of street photography was broadly following a path forged not by one individual but by a vague ‘movement’ that Maier was a part of, albeit an unknown one. Meaning: the same factors that influenced Maier (technology, socio-economic, artistic) will have influenced others, who in turn influenced others after them. Maier is kind of a belatedly-discovered link, not a missing link as such, more one that corroborates the developments demonstrated by others.

One aspect of this book, and the other work I’ve seen of Maier’s, is that it’s all from the 1950s and 1960s, and yet it’s known that she carried on at the same level of output until the late 1990s. Why is her published work so narrowly curated? Is it because this is her best work, and she peaked and then declined to the point where the only remarkable aspect of her work was its quantity? Or is it that a central attraction of her work is the ‘time capsule’ nostalgia element? Or is it simply that the curators of her legacy are saving the rest up for future publishing? (My assumption is a combination of the first two points: quality peaking early and nostalgic interest).

In summary, an excellent collection of sometimes extraordinarily good images. Look beyond the quirky backstory and there is some truly great street photography here.

1. Maier, V and Maloof, J. 2011. Street photographer. New York: Powerhouse


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Vivian Maier, Don McCullin and Honesty

The first two films in the 2013 run of the BBC’s arts documentary series ‘Imagine’ were about two very different photographers: Vivian Maier, the French-American nanny whose work laid undiscovered for decades, and Don McCullin, the highly acclaimed war photographer. At first glance they couldn’t be more different; but after watching both films and researching their work, I’m increasingly persuaded that they represent a particular facet of photography: the topic of honesty.

Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?
BBC2, Tuesday 25 June 2013, part of Imagine series, presenter: Alan Yentob

The tale is amazing, if increasingly well-known: Chicago nanny of French origin takes tens of thousands of photos documenting street and family life in her neighbourhood in the 1950s and 1960s; she never shows them, simply hoards them away until a time where she can no longer afford to pay the storage fees and they are sold off to speculative traders; slowly the wealth of her work is revealed and after her death she is feted as the great unsung heroine of American street photography.

The human story is interesting enough, but what piqued my interest was this: how does someone spend their life taking thousands of great – often amazing – photographs without ever sharing them with anyone? Think about that for a minute: photography is an inherently visual medium; it exists as art if there is a viewer to appreciate it (or hate it, or be intrigued by it, or be indifferent to it) – it needs a reaction, doesn’t it? It feels like half of the photographic endeavour was missing until after her death, when it was finally fulfilled in a huge outpouring of viewing, critique and appreciation.

The subject matter was street life, almost all was in mono. The style was candid, observational – commenting without words on the America of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s fascinating to see the subject matter change, even if the streets didn’t: from families in the early 50s, through down-and-outs and outsiders, to people-less shots of refuse and decay; mirroring her view of the world, one presumes, and equally capturing the mood of the nation over those two decades. The passage of time possibly lends the pictures a more interesting life than if they’d been seen contemporaneously; they simultaneously reinforce and shine a light on an era that we’ve had the benefit of fifty years to digest and make sense of.

So one can presume she took photos just for herself, for her own interest. Anecdotes from people who knew her don’t imply that she was particularly lacking in confidence. A great many photos she never even printed; as the narration says, some of these images haven’t been seen since Maier looked through the viewfinder. Maybe it was the act she enjoyed rather than the end result. Whatever the reason, the body of work she produced is highly rare, maybe unique, in that she never took any feedback, was never guided, edited or influenced by anyone else, never sought or received any praise or criticism: her work represents the pure, unadulterated artistic vision of one person. The ultimate, lifelong personal project.

Which brings us to the point that really hit home for me: the level of honesty in her work. Honesty in photography works at different levels:

  • You choose, or are told, what you’re going to shoot in the first place (for example, the changing instructions given to the photographers in the US Farm Security Administration project of the 1930-40s – first asked to find examples of the poor and dispossessed, then as the Second World War took hold, told to seek out subjects that embodied the proud, upbeat spirit that America wanted to project)
  • You choose exactly where you point the camera, what you fit in the frame (you “put four edges round the facts” as Garry Winogrand puts it); you crop out what doesn’t fit your point/vision/agenda
  • You select the captured images that convey the message you want to get across – this hit me over the head when I saw the outtakes from the famous Diane Arbus shot of the skinny kid with the toy grenade; in the final edit he looks edgy, creepy, an outsider… but the contact sheet shows shots of him laughing, looking happy, like a normal kid
  • You tweak, crop, retouch the images in what we now call post-processing, to better fit your vision; this can be subtle, or it can be highly contrived or constructed as in advertising or fashion photography

Maier may have done the first two of these (as mentioned above, she changed the subject matter over the years), but she could never be accused of any further manipulation or even editing after the shutter clicked; not if she didn’t even look at the results afterwards. Her portraits capture real people, with lives, emotions, hopes etched on their faces; her street shots show completely unconstructed scenes of daily life. It’s a form of photographic truth that, combined with her natural technical skill, makes for a body of work that really draws your gaze. Put simply, my personal preferences lean towards honesty rather than staging in subject matter.

In the digital age it’s pretty hard to try to emulate Maier’s ethos. We all share our work, and I dare say all of us seek acknowledgement and feedback. It’s not easy to stick to a pure artistic vision like she did – and we shouldn’t even try in my humble opinion. But it has made me think about the importance of being ‘photographically honest’: to compose in-camera, to take fewer photos, to resist the temptation to rattle off a load of shots and think ‘one of them will be OK, I can fix it in Lightroom’ etc.

McCullin
BBC2, Tuesday 2nd July 2013, part of Imagine series, produced and directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris

Being a documentary about probably the most famous living war photographer, this is more straightforward in its dissection of the issue of honesty – or integrity, or truth as it is referred to in this context. It’s an astonishingly powerful film, bringing home not just the horrors of war but the effect they have on the individual witnessing and recording it. Donald McCullin comes across as a supremely humanitarian photographer, yet conflicted: on the one hand he talks openly about his need to record the atrocities to show the world the unpalatable realities of war, and on the other hand he admits to the adventurer in him enjoying the adrenaline rush of being in a war zone – in one archive interview saying he needs “one war a year”.

War photography is supposed to be inherently about honesty. It’s reporting, not entertainment. It’s capturing events, not staging them. There is a larger question on photography as a form of propaganda, when interested parties direct the scenes being captured and select the images being shown. This insinuation can never be levelled at McCullin; he worked for newspapers, not governments, and at least up to the Murdoch takeover of the Sunday Times he was allowed to cover the war zones without editorial influence.

The honesty question works on a couple of levels in this film: what struck me about McCullin was how open he was about his conflicted feelings on his work; how he confessed that he was affected by what he saw and haunted by not just the photos he took, but by the ones he chose not to take. And yet continued to go back to the frontline. He was honest about his approach to capturing the truth.

There’s a lingering impression of regret; not really for his choice of career – however conflicted, he comes across as believing he did the right thing – but for the legacy of his work somehow having a counter-productive impact. The ‘success’ of his style of war zone reportage in the 1960s and 1970s was such that it’s been subsequently difficult to get the same kind of raw access to the frontline… the USA felt the sting of the public backlash against Vietnam and the war photographer has been treated with a certain amount of suspicion ever since (indeed, McCullin thought himself to be the obvious choice to cover the Falklands conflict, but was barred from doing so lest he paint the UK in too negative a light). In the end, he might have been too honest.

The sense of conflict obviously remains; whilst the film ends with him looking back on his career, claiming all he wants to shoot these days are landscapes and plants, I’ve since read that he made a trip out to Syria recently. So much for retirement.

A pair of inspiring, humbling and thought-provoking films.